Families are like hands-either right or left handed in dominance. You tend to see one side of the family more often, spend more time focused on that side. Not even really knowing the potential that might exist in the other side as a gain or a loss to your lives. My mother’s side of the family was the dominant side of our family.
The elders of my mother’s side were her Father, my Grandfather who lived several hours away and his Sisters’ in law, who I refer to as “The Aunts”, and a brother in law – all unmarried who shared a house in the next town near us. I didn’t know my grandfather all that well, since he did not live nearby. On the way to visit him, I got carsick every single trip so most of my memories of him surround that. As a child I did not realize that my grandfather was an outsider to the family. I didn’t realize it until I inherited the family genealogy when I was much older. I knew my own father was an outsider, I could tell that very young. When I realized my grandfather too had that brand, it made sense that he moved so far away.
I didn’t know him when he was married, my grandmother had died the decade before I was born. He had worked many years at the Church as a janitor. By the time I knew him, he had retired to a farm in Southern Ohio of several hundred acres where he planted corn and beans and lived in a fairly primitive farm house with little indoor plumbing, working all the daylight hours and reading science fiction paperbacks at night in the company of two very short, very chubby dachshunds.
You know the expression, The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? Well in my mother’s family, the right hand knew damn well what the left hand was doing and ruled the left hand with an iron fist hidden in a little white lace trimmed glove perfect for church on Sunday – Catholic Church where you wore gloves and a hat. Anything that wasn’t something you could share in church was hidden or driven away. Even if those things that weren’t things people could control – like death or mental illness (of which both sides of my family seem to have their fair share though no one wants to admit it).
My Grandfather’s marriage to my maternal grandmother was his second. He lost his wife and their second child in the Flu epidemic in 1918. As was done at the time, he gave his surviving son, just four years old, to this sister to take care of for him, presumably until he could remarry and rebuild a family. When my grandfather met and married into this rather severely strict catholic family in Ohio – that son was not welcome. He was a reminder of another woman. We were told for many years, that young boy, then a man by the time I was old enough and asking, was a cousin, when he was in fact my Mother’s half brother. We never met him. I have a very old black and white photo taken when he was in the army in World War II. He’s handsome and smiling – I would say dashing. And we never met him because the right hand wouldn’t allow it.
Apparently also not allowed was any sort of perceived physical or mental defect. At some point someone mistakenly mentioned a Great Uncle named John. Who’s that we all wanted to know? Why have we never seen him or hear of him before? “Oh he’s a traveler. He likes to travel.” Even to a child that seemed a bit lame, but adults don’t lie, right? So off I went, into my head, making up romantic tales of his travels and wondering where on the globe in our living room he might be, what adventures he might be having, what was his life like? I don’t believe my young self ever asked “why didn’t he come back to visit”. I used to practice packing my little orange suitcase, given the opportunity at 8 or 9, I think I would have left too and not returned.
Fast forward a couple decades and my mother hands over the genealogy and I start asking more questions. “Where did he travel to?” “Oh he wasn’t traveling,” my mother admitted, “ That’s just want the Aunts like to say. He wasn’t well and he was in a hospital.” My mother told me that Great Uncle Phillip was brought to visit once for an afternoon and she met him when she came home from school as a young teen. “Why couldn’t he stay?” I wanted to know. Certainly he was family and if he could visit, he was well enough to stay. Family took care of family, right? “He wasn’t well enough to stay.”
Years later I pressed her for more. The Aunts were dead by then and I wanted to know. He’d been taken to an asylum in Michigan, where my internet research showed there were three popularly used asylums during the early to mid 1900’s. That was all my mother and even her sister, the family busybody knew. He’d died but no one could tell me when or where he was buried. I found his World War I draft card, a copy online. There was his name, his signature and information. He was twenty years old, His eyes were brown, his hair was black, he was of medium height and build. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was more than I’d ever had. Then I saw under employer, it said “Unemployed, patient at Massillon State Hospital.” He’d been hospitalized nearly his whole life.
The Aunts were constant fixtures during my childhood. We visited them every week. They read a newsletter that came in the mail weekly from the Pope – not directly from the pope though they acted as though it was personally from him. It indicated what movies were okay to see, how people should behave, what politicians to follow and more. I didn’t know the word hypocrisy as a child, but the concept was always looming in my foreground. I was a keen observer, taking in the details and filing them away in my head. I was often stymied by the inability to ask questions when opposing concepts crashed together right before my eyes. For one, I never understood how these three prim, overly powdered, church going ladies could smoke, drink and gamble so much? In college I was at a bar with some friends and we were experimenting with various mixed drinks. Someone passed me a Manhattan. I sniffed it and said, “Wow, that smells like my Great Aunt Mary!” To this day, Liquor and cigarette smoke – powerful memory triggers.
I had no idea that there was so much dishonesty being spread around between hands of euchre and pinochle. As a young child, I was closest to the older of the Aunts, she didn’t smoke, she didn’t drink as much as the others. She was the oldest of a family of 8 children and at sixteen had to become the mom when her own mother died. She cooked and cleaned and carried on being the mom until she was unable to and faded away in a hospital bed that took up a large part of the living room at the age of 87. I was eleven, not quite a teen by then. I remember visiting her weekly. She would sit up on the edge of the bed. I would sit next to her and hold her bony, powdered right hand in my left hand and tell her whatever useless news a pre-teenager could have. I was her favorite. One day she squeezed my hand and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.”
That was the beginning of the end of the dominant side of the family. Dominance dies out. The truth sometimes dies out with them even in the internet age.
Note: Names in this and all blogs will not be the actual names of the persons being described.